Teen Suicide Rates Have Increased

By Temma Ehrenfeld and Sherry Baker @temmaehrenfeld
April 28, 2022
Girl sitting with cat on windowsill --- Image by © Oleh Slobodeniuk/Corbis

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among high school-aged American teens between the ages of 14 and 18. You can help prevent the tragedy of teen suicide.

More U.S. teens are killing themselves than ever before, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Suicide is the second leading cause of death among high school-aged American teens between the ages of 14 and 18. Only unintentional injuries from accidents take more adolescent lives.

What’s more, although teen suicide is a serious public health problem, the CDC notes that attempted suicides that didn’t result in death have also increased during the past decade. According to records from representative samples of emergency departments across the U.S., in 2018 about 95,000 youngsters between 14 and 18 were treated in EDs for injuries resulting from self-harm.

How can we stop the trend? It’s often hard to predict who is in danger. Depression and a family history of suicide make suicide attempts more likely, as do poor decision-making skills. The American Psychological Association (APA) notes alcohol and substance abuse, impulsive behaviors, and a history of trauma or abuse also increase the risk of suicidal thoughts or behaviors in teens.


YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: When Your Teen Thinks About Suicide


Warning signs of teen suicide

Not every adolescent who is at risk for suicide exhibits any or all of these behaviors indicating they’re thinking killing themselves. But the APA emphasizes these warning signs are cause for concern:

  • A youngster’s grades drop suddenly.
  • There are physical changes in a teen’s appearance or hygiene.
  • The adolescent is using alcohol or drugs; an increase in substance abuse is especially concerning.
  • A teen withdraws from friends or social activities.
  • A teen talks about suicide, feeling hopeless, or having nothing to live for, and he or she may seem preoccupied with death.
  • An adolescent demonstrates risky behaviors (such as reckless driving or unsafe sex); self-harming, such as cutting, may be evident, too.
  • A teen is researching suicide methods or has acquired a gun or other weapon.

Sometimes, warning signs of suicide in people of any age may be more obvious. Igor Galynker, MD, PhD, and colleagues at Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital in New York have identified an intense pre-suicidal state of “frantic hopelessness.”

As one patient put it, “Imagine you have been left behind in a department store after hours. The lights are going out. You are trying to escape, you are running from door to door, but all the doors are locked.” In this state people feel trapped and overwhelmed by their own painful, repetitive thoughts — as if their heads could explode. They may also have unfamiliar physical sensations, often in the skin and all over the body.

Teen suicide triggers

The time between the decision to commit suicide and the action that results in death may be short — from 5 minutes to a day — so policies that make it harder to find that gun or bottle of pills can buy critical moments. If the gun or drugs aren’t readily available, the suicidal teen may change his or her mind.

David Brent, MD, a psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh and an advocate of stronger gun-control laws, notes research credits restrictive gun laws with lowering suicide death rates in Brazil, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and some U.S. states. It’s a good idea for responsible parents who own guns to use trigger-locks and store ammunition and guns separately.

If your teen is taking a breakup hard, do your best to keep booze out of reach. Any personal blow combined with alcohol can be a lethal combination when it comes to triggering suicide, studies show. Also, keep an eye on teens who can’t sleep; insomnia is tied to moodiness and suicidal thinking.

Migraines or daily headaches are linked to suicidal thoughts, as well. After reviewing a range of treatments for teens who have attempted suicide, Brent and colleagues concluded that the most successful treatments get parents more involved and help kids find new ways to feel happy. They suggest programs to promote quality sleep and sobriety.

Teens who get too little sleep, focus on electronic gadget activity, and don’t exercise —about 29 percent of the teens in one huge sample from across Europe — may be in more trouble than you’d guess.

In a study published in World Psychiatry, Swedish researchers looked at data scoring 2,395 European high-school students on a wide range of measures, including heavy drinking, illegal drug use, heavy smoking, and truancy. About 13 percent scored high on all the risky-behavior measures; of this group, more than 10 percent had attempted suicide.

The sedentary sleep-deprived internet-users, whom the researchers considered an “invisible risk group,” were almost as likely to have suicidal thoughts, and nearly 6 percent of them had made a suicide attempt. Among teens who didn’t score high on any of the danger signs, only 1.7 percent had attempted suicide.

Proactive strategies to help prevent teen suicide

Don’t hesitate to express your concern to a teen. Instead, openly expressing you are concerned about a young person’s feelings can go far to help them feel you care and understand. But really listen, the APA says. It’s tempting for parents to shut down emotional conversations with comments like “I had it rough as a teen and I got over it.” Instead, ask the young person how they feel and truly pay attention.

If you feel the need to protect your depressed youngster, don’t try to keep your child isolated. Isolation can increase the risk of teen suicide attempts, the APA explains. Instead, work on ways to help your son or daughter maintain connections with friends. Parents need to make an effort to spend extra time with their child. Even just watching TV or playing video games with your child can help show that your teen has support.

Don’t hold back on compassion. Tell your teen you love them, that their pain can get better, and that you will make sure they get the help they need.

It’s important for parents to trust their judgment, according to the APA. Even if your son or daughter denies feeling suicidal, but your gut feeling tells you otherwise, actively take steps to keep your teen safe. Remove any weapons and drugs from the house, make sure the youngster is not left alone, and seek a consult with a mental health professional immediately.

Where to find help

If it appears a teen is likely to attempt self-harm soon, this is an emergency. Call 911 or take the youngster to a hospital or crisis center for evaluation. If the situation is less urgent, get a referral ASAP from your child’s doctor or school psychologist for a therapist experienced in working with troubled teens.

Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK), which provides free and confidential support 24/7 for people in distress and information on crisis resources to help prevent suicide. Share the number with your troubled teen, too.


YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: Depressed Teens Are at Risk for Heart Disease


April 28, 2022

Reviewed By:  

Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA and Janet O'Dell, RN